Sophal and her niece, Mullyna, are unpacking big boxes of fried pig ears when I arrive. They are stocking the shelves of the shop they both own, a shop whose name means “something like freedom.” Sophal moved to Maine from Cambodia when she was nine. She is quiet and hardworking. Mullyna is 21, cheerful and enthusiastic. She grew up here in Maine. Located on Portland’s St. John Street, Sevey Pheap Market is nondescript on the exterior, with a riot of color on the inside: stacked high with products and packages in multiple languages , filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, often from faraway places. Long stems of lemongrass, bright persimmon, spiky lychee.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOU BECAME AN OWNER OF THIS SHOP.
Sophal – Actually it was my sister’s idea to open the shop. Mullyna’s mom thought of it.
Mullyna– We’re the owners but my mom is the manager, so she runs everything. We do what she says. She’d been wanting to run a business or a store. She wanted a restaurant at the beginning but the opportunity came to open this shop. This place was up for sale or something and it was a really good deal so she thought “Oh, we should look into that.” But we used to help out with the other store we had before this one– it shut down already– and we all helped out and gained experience from that. I kind of just was thrown into it, I don’t know, I’m still in school and stuff so I can’t put all my time into the store. I’m studying biology.
WHAT KIND OF PRODUCTS DO YOU SPECIALIZE IN?
Mullyna – It’s a mix of stuff. It’s mostly Thai because the food vendors that we go through they are wholesale from Thai companies but- I think it’d be mostly Thai and probably Chinese products. The vegetables that we get are mostly from Florida. We’re Cambodian.
WILL YOU TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR FAMILY’S STORY ABOUT COMING TO AMERICA?
Sophal – Well, my Uncle, they sponsored us here. They are in Maine and they- so they sponsored my whole family, 10 of us total.
Mullyna– I was born here so I don’t know what they went through but I always hear stories. Because my mom’s the oldest out of them, there’s eight children, so when they came they obviously didn’t have anything like this, they didn’t have money. So they were doing hard labor. That’s what my mom was doing for a while, until this opportunity came up. You could start working, working for yourself, not working under someone else doing hard labor all the time. They came here because there was a genocide in Cambodia.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE FOR YOUR FAMILY AND FOR YOU, SOPHAL, TO COME TO MAINE?
Sophal – Well, the cold, the winter. We don’t have the winter back there in Cambodia. We arrived during winter time too. We saw snow and ice, and oh my god, we freaked out. We thought, “How do people live here with all the snow and ice?” I was 9 when I came here.
WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES LIKE OF CAMBODIA?
Sophal – Cambodia, well I don’t really remember much of Cambodia. It’s just over there, back then, like- Well my mom, she did some kind of small business. I would just go to school.
Mullyna– Well, since I was born here in the US, I went to Cambodia when I was about seven. So I don’t really remember much, obviously, I just remember it being a lot different from here. We were in the country over there. We have family in the poor country, the poorer part of Cambodia, so they were living in straw houses. It’s crazy because you go in the city and you see all these homeless people, they can barely afford to get a thing of rice whereas here we have so many. We can get access to so many different kinds of food.
DOES THIS STORE FEEL LIKE A CONNECTION TO YOUR HOME OR YOUR HERITAGE?
Mullyna– For me it’s obviously a benefit because I don’t have to go out and buy all this food that people usually spend tons of money on, because a lot of Cambodian foods you can’t really find the ingredients or can’t afford elsewhere, so you have to come to markets like these. We used to have huge family dinners so now that we have our store everyone’s just cooking like crazy because there’s so many ingredients here that we can use and try.
WHAT ARE THE ITEMS PEOPLE MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT, THAT YOU WISH MORE PEOPLE WOULD TRY?
Mullyna– There’s a lot. Probably the meats I would say. We carry a lot of weird things, there’s pork blood, frog legs. We have baby crickets, they’re frozen. I don’t eat them but people that cook them they kind of- I think they put them in batter and deep fry it and eat it just like French fries! Pork blood usually people stir fry it with tofu and bean sprouts, or we make rice porridge.
ARE THERE PRODUCTS YOUR CUSTOMERS DON’T SEE ELSEHWHERE? WHAT DO PEOPLE ASK ABOUT THE MOST?
Sophal– Fruit. The fruit, pretty much. Jackfruit is what usually makes people ask, “What is this?” We used to have some just for people to test because people are so afraid to try new stuff and things.
Mullyna– We don’t really have many right now because summer’s over but in the summer we had lychees,, jackfruit, and we sold the whole jackfruits, so they’re huge, those are huge, and we have durians, frozen, but still fresh.
TELL ME ABOUT THE SHRINE THAT YOU HAVE IN YOUR SHOP.
Sophal– Oh, yes, they pretty much have that every restaurant, every grocery store, it’s just lucky, it’s just money, you just leave an offering every day. They prefer tea, Chinese, tea and you just put them a dessert or any kind of fruit.
Mullyna– They’re very precise on where you put it in the store because there’s superstition and stuff. Putting it towards the door will probably bring in more customers and stuff like that and sometimes we’ll put a pastry or something or just juice in the morning for respect.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR MOM’S COOKING.
Mullyna– Before the store she was pretty much well known for her cooking. Any time there was a big party or something people would just go to her and ask. She’s so busy all the time but she can’t say no.
Sophal– I cook, too. Not as good as my sister. I cook hot pots and stuff.
WHAT ARE MOST OF YOUR CLIENTS AND CUSTOMERS LIKE?
Sophal– A lot of Vietnamese.
Mullyna– I feel like it’s kind of equal with both Cambodian and Vietnamese. Most of the Cambodians that come in here we pretty much know. It’s such a small community so everyone knows each other so when we get random faces it’s like, “Where did you come from?” – My family is so big so we know a lot of people so it’s pretty much word of mouth connection people that just come in here. A lot of our American customers they’re usually looking for ingredients that they’re trying, and most of our other regular customers they cook all the time. A lot of the Asian community they don’t really like going out and spending money, eating out and stuff, they’d rather just cook for their whole family and so I think most of it is just family recipes that are passed down from one another.
HAVE YOU NOTICED DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AMERICAN CULTURE AND CAMBODIAN CULTURE?
Sophal– Well, over here in America, when everyone hits a certain age they all go to school, but back in my country some kids they can’t. they’re really poor so they go work, support their parents. They start working when they’re little sometimes so they don’t get to go to school. It’s a big difference. Over there it’s just if your parents are really poor they don’t go to school they just find a job, support the family.
Mullyna– Because my mom’s very old-fashioned. I kind of picked up the culture growing up here but she’s still stuck in her old fashioned ways. Obviously school is a difference. My dad graduated from high school and that was it and then my mom didn’t even finish school, didn’t even get to go to school when she came here. So when I was in high school, my little sister she’s in high school now, applying for colleges, they made it so clear that school was a number one priority. And it’s understandable because they didn’t have that opportunity. Growing up in my family I always cared about school because my parents didn’t have the chance to take advantage of that, but we do. It’s very old fashioned, the Cambodian culture: respect is everything. And I always follow that but when you hang out with other people from other cultures and stuff they don’t really think that’s that important. It’s hard to explain. And in our culture, you’re always helping your family. That’s what I’m doing right now. But say if it was another family outside of the Cambodian family, sometimes it’s not all about family. They’ll help if they have to but people don’t willingly go out of their way to help out their family, stuff like that. And Cambodian culture is much more strict, too. Like in high school my curfew was this specific time, couldn’t go certain places. My other friends, their parents were more carefree about stuff like that.
WHEN YOUR FAMILY GETS TOGETHER AND COOKS ARE THERE DISHES THAT YOU ALWAYS MAKE?
Mullyna– There’s one that my uncle and his wife – it’s like a chicken, lettuce wrap – they make it all the time, it’s like his little- it’s the one he really loves but other times it’s just really random. There’s so many different kinds of food. We like makin pho in the winter.
Sophal– Hot pots. It’s like one of those big hot pot pans, and then you just throw all the ingredients. Throw the vegetables, meat in there. It’s so good. And it’s easy to make too.Pretty much vegetables, a lot of vegetables.
TELL ABOUT WHAT YOU DO FOR THANKSGIVING.
Mullyna– It’s a mix of things. We usually make the typical mashed potatoes and corn, stuff like that but we like to get seafood and stuff and make Asian dishes and especially because my family is so big we have to cook so much food. Cooking food is not just a few hour thing for us it’s an all day thing. We usually just have one turkey but other foods because all we need is just one turkey with the other food that we’re making too, probably Lo Mein, fried rice, a bunch of different stir fries, egg rolls, we make a lot of egg rolls, we’ll probably make hot pot, probably it.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AS A PERSON?
Sophal– My family. We have a large family, and most of the time they’re coming in and out of the shop. Most of the time it looks like there’s more customers in here but it’s mostly our family coming in and out to help out. That’s how important it is.
Mullyna– I would say my family, that’s the number one thing, because no matter what you’re going to always have them. That’s probably it. And school. My family’s probably number one.
WHAT IS A LESSON YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
Sophal – Well business, I guess. I’ve just never ran a business before and this is the first time that I’ve run one. So, I kind of learn along the way.
Mullyna – Never taking anything for granted. I don’t know, growing up I pretty much got it easy, my parents always were there, helping with our stuff. But I see other kids they work really hard to get most of the stuff that they have. Probably just that I think.
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Sophal – Try to get through every day.
Mullyna – Oh my god, there’s this one that I just read, and I love it. I think it’s something about “tomorrow is a mystery.” For me I always think about today and you can’t really know about tomorrow, you have to keep yourself busy and get through the day because no matter what you have to face today.
Sophal – You can’t let time pass you by.
WHAT THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING YOUR LIFE?
Sophal – The greatest gift or blessing in my life? My kids. My oldest is 14, my second is nine and my youngest is two. They are very busy, especially the little one. I’m lucky, my sister-in-law is not working so she stays with her while I’m here because if she’s here she comes her and gets in everything.
Mullyna – My parents, for one, but I think just growing up here just because everyone always tells me about what they went through in Cambodia, they did not have the life that I have right now, so you just, you feel lucky for being able to live this life.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
Sophal – The greatest struggle right now is that just I don’t really have time for my kids and my family, my own family. I don’t really- now that I’m here a lot I don’t really get to spend time with them and help them out with their school work.
Mullyna – Right now it would obviously have to be balancing school and the business at the same time. It’s hard because I want to be here a lot but with my major and with my classes I just don’t have that time. Then also trying to balance my social life. I’m 21, you know what I mean. It’s hard, I find a way to make it happen but it’s definitely hard.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
Sophal – To be with my family, spend time with them on my day off.
Mullyna – Going to sleep!